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Being With Buzz

By Brian Kushida
Published: December 13, 2009, 10:01 PM

For several years, Sanford Health has used pet therapy to make its child patients feel better while hospitalized. That pet-visiting program was extended to adult patients just last year, to help them heal, too. But there's been a lot of buzz over one special dog that stops by on a weekly basis.

Among the doctors and nurses making the rounds at Sanford USD Medical Center, walks a four-legged friend.
"He's wagging his tail, he's always happy," said Teresa Ruckelshausen, who owns Buzz.

And while the dog named Buzz may be one of the shortest volunteers you'll see around the medical center, it's hard to argue just how high he lifts the spirits of those around him.

"He just likes everybody and is friendly with everybody. And I think people can tell when you're liked," Ruckelshausen said.

Buzz is one of five therapy dogs brought in each week to help bring comfort to patients. The medical oncology floor is *his doggie domain, where he's able to bring pause during what can be tough times.

"It puts their mind at ease, think about something else besides the fact that they're here for a medical reason," Director of Volunteer Services Nona Bixler said.

"They're very non-judgmental. They don't care if your hair doesn't look good today, or you're missing more hair than you usually have. Or you have tubes coming out of your arms. And things like that -- the dogs don't care, and they just love them the way they are," Ruckelshausen said.

For the second week in a row, patient Cora Gann is one of the stops on Buzz's list. Radiation has limited Gann's trips out of bed, but she says being with Buzz somehow makes the pain go away, if only for a moment.

"He definitely puts a smile on your face as soon as he walks through the door," Gann said.

It's that kind of caring characteristics that Ruckelshausen says comes naturally for many therapy dogs, including Buzz. She originally adopted the dachshund as a companion at home. But a friend took notice of the dog's demeanor, and urged Ruckelshausen to get Buzz out of the house and into patients' rooms.

But it takes more than obedience to be able to reach out to patients.

Buzz, like other therapy dogs, had to go through six weeks of training to become certified.

"They make sure that they're OK with people with walkers, and wheelchairs, and crutches. And then they make loud noises because when you're in a loud hospital, a tray will drop or an I.V. will start beeping," Ruckelshausen said.
With about a year of experience under his collar, Buzz knows well how to stay calm during new situations. And those closest to him know he loves every minute of his visits.

"When he gets with a patient, he's just warm, sits in their lamp, lets them pet him. It's almost like he wants the attention, like he gets out of it as much as our patients get out of it," Bixler said.

Buzz's owner is all too familiar with her pet's preference to help while in the spotlight, which is why the hot dog is staying on the floor for as long as possible.

"I just want to continue touching people's lives. And if I can make someone smile when they're having a bad situation, that's just enough to know it's making a difference," Ruckelshausen said.

And continue creating the buzz about Buzz.

Staff on the medical oncology floor know how hard a dog's day of work can be. So on his way out, they make sure he gets a treat for all he's done for patients.

Sanford has two more dogs that they're training to come on-board as therapy pets. They're expected to start in early 2010.

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